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Archive for Monday, February 11, 2002

Grave site may yield homicide victims

February 11, 2002

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— Scammon residents will soon witness events more common to the deserts of Egypt than to southeast Kansas.

Anthropologists soon will begin excavating a grave site south of the tiny city, looking for the remains of black coal miners who, according to legend, were murdered and then buried in an unmarked grave in the late 1800s.

Peer Moore-Jansen, Wichita State University anthropology professor, has been searching the area around Scammon for a legendary mass grave site. He's returning to the area, specifically to a small plot of ground just south of Scammon, to dig for hard evidence of the mass grave  and possible murder.

In October, U.S. Army engineers electronically scanned the small field for Moore-Jansen. The electronic scan shows differences in the underlying ground structure, providing researchers with a look into what lies beneath the surface.

"It looks very interesting," Moore-Jansen said of test results recently supplied by the U.S. Army. The army has a special unit that electronically locates underground anomalies, something useful when you're trying to locate an unmarked cemetery.

Moore-Jansen said the results have been difficult to interpret.

"There are some unexplained disturbances in this test, possibly from a nearby electrical sub-station or one of the many underlying mine shafts. The area is honeycombed with old mine shafts. It's difficult to pin it down," he said of the tests.

Moore-Jansen's work on the project began after Wichita resident Norma Tolson contacted the university seeking help in verifying a local legend she uncovered while researching a book she plans to write about black history.

Tolson, a native of Weir, graduated from Pittsburg State University but now lives in Wichita with her husband. She has extensively researched black history in southeast Kansas, publishing one book and is in the process of writing another.

According to Moore-Jansen, Tolson has provided compelling evidence and that, along with the Army's ground scan, has left little doubt there is a gravesite south of Scammon.

However, digging will be necessary to answer all of the questions.

Tolson's tale centers on white striking miners who, according to local lore, murdered 18 to 20 black miners and placed their bodies in a single grave near Scammon.

Social unrest and bigotry haunted blacks in southeast Kansas in the late 1800s, particularly during the coal mine strikes.

Area journals and newspapers of the late 1800s support reports of racial unrest in the area, primarily during the coal mine strikes of 1893, 1899, and later into the 1900s.

According to one article printed in the Weir Journal in August 1893, confrontations between white striking miners and blacks were extremely volatile, leading to fights and shootings. According to reports, black workers were brought in by the "Big Four Coal Companies" in an attempt to break ongoing strikes.

And other such stories exist regarding the death of black miners in the area. In fact, one story tells of approximately 15 miners who were killed as a result of a mine explosion and then buried on the ground south of Scammon.

Either way, "We'll find out," Moore-Jansen said.

If Moore-Jansen is able to exhume remains at the site of the supposed mass grave, he'll be able to answer many questions. He's a noted forensic pathologist who routinely handles cases similar to this type for officials in Sedgwick County.

"I'll be able to tell who's buried there, if they were of Indian, American, or black ancestry. I'll be able to determine how they died, if they were murdered or died from a disease," he said.

He went on to say he'd hoped to be digging before Christmas, but that didn't work out.

"There's just too much to get done first," he said. "I still need to get final permission from the landowner. I'm sure that won't be a problem. Everyone there has been very forthcoming with help.

"We're not looking to blame anyone, that's not the purpose. Tolson just wants to set the historical record straight. Wouldn't it be nice to have a memorial or something out there?"

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